The Geek Syndrome, Brains, and Gender

In a 1993 Wired article, writer Steve Silberman characterized autism as the “geek syndrome.” Given that autism is partially hereditary, Silberman asked if the concentrations (and eventual pairing, known as assortative mating) of geeky folk in places like Silicon Valley meant that the “genes responsible for bestowing certain special gifts on slightly autistic adults—the very abilities that have made them dreamers and architects of our technological future—are capable of bringing a plague down on the best minds of the next generation.”[1] A few years later, neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen and his colleagues tested if there was a link between profession, heredity, and autism. Analyzing surveys from parents of children with autism, they found that fathers of these children were twice as likely to be in an engineering field than those of other children.[2] Baron-Cohen would go on to posit gendered types of thinking (female/empathizing vs male/systematizing) and argue that autism is actually a type of extreme male brain.[3] He came to call this “The Hyper-Systemizing, Assortative Mating Theory of Autism.”[4]

Baron-Cohen’s theory of gender and autism is controversial. On one hand, gender essentialism, attributing fixed and innate psychological attributes to men and women, is popular, as seen in the self-help classic Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Yet, despite small average differences and variance at the extremes, there is a lot of overlap in the personality, cognition, and behavior of men and women.[5] Cordelia Fine, a critic of gender essentialism, notes that even Baron-Cohen concedes that only half of the women in his studies have the “female” or “empathizing” sort of brain.[6] In related literature, one study found a weak association between men and systematic thinking, others found the inverse or no significant gender pattern at all.[7] Physical indicators like height, waist-to-hip ratio, and voice pitch are predictive of one another, but this is not the case for behavior: gender is multi-dimensional rather than categorical and scoring stereotypically in one behavior is not a good predictor of others, which is also true of the underlying brain structures.[8]

Additionally, the literature on autism and profession is inconclusive. With respect to parents, studies have found no association and a slight association with mothers’, rather than fathers’, professions. Among subjects themselves, a study of almost half a million viewers of UK Channel 4 found a positive relationship between being male, working in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering, and mathematical), and having a high Autism-Spectrum Quotient.[9] In my experiences with life hackers, in person and online, I encountered a lot of men, many of whom had technical jobs, and some of whom may have been somewhere on the autism spectrum. It is enough of an imbalance to be noticeable, to invite research, and to affect the larger culture, but we cannot yet declaim its causes.

All of this is complicated by the fact that our understanding of autism is biased. On the gender front, autism’s initial formulations were largely based on boys; autistic girls may have different behaviors or topics of enthusiasm, and society’s expectations about appropriate behavior likely affect girls’ socialization and diagnoses.[10] On the question of parents’ professions, Silicon Valley parents may have been more likely to push for diagnosis and treatment given their financial resources and early networking online. Additionally, the literature mentioned so far tends towards the medical view of autism, seeing it as a disorder, whereas others see neurodiversity and seek understanding rather than a cure.

The “geek syndrome” hypothesis is a contentious one, among researchers and the public. It intersects with debates about gender difference and essentialism, cognitive difference and disability, and questions of identity and culture. In 2016, Silberman returned to the topic in NeuroTribes: The Legacy Of Autism And The Future Of Neurodiversity. Silberman describes the history of autism diagnosis and treatment, of its likely association with early geek culture (especially ham radio and the MIT Railroad Club), of its normalization in popular media (by way of the film Rainman), and the rise of parent and autist advocacy.[11] In the intervening twenty-three years, Silberman realized that the “geek syndrome” is more complex and controversial than he originally conceived.

  1. Steve Silberman, “The Geek Syndrome,” Wired, August 30, 1993, http://www.wired.com/2001/12/aspergers/.

  2. Simon Baron-Cohen et al., “Is There a Link Between Engineering and Autism?” Autism 1 (1997): 153–63, http://docs.autismresearchcentre.com/papers/1997_BCetal_Engineer.pdf.

  3. Simon Baron-Cohen, The Essential Difference: The Truth About the Male and Female Brain (New York: Basic Books, 2003).

  4. Simon Baron-Cohen, “The Hyper-Systemizing, Assortative Mating Theory of Autism,” Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry 30, no. 5 (July 2006), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pnpbp.2006.01.010.

  5. Lise Eliot, Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps – and What We Can Do About It (Boston: Marine or Books, 2009); Yanna J. Weisberg, Colin G. Deyoung, and Jacob B. Hirsh, “Gender Differences in Personality Across the Ten Aspects of the Big Five,” Ncbi, August 1, 2011, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3149680/.

  6. Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference (New York: WW Norton & Co., 2010), 16.

  7. Paul Norris and Seymour Epstein, “An Experiential Thinking Style: Its Facets and Relations with Objective and Subjective Criterion Measures,” Journal of Personality 79, no. 5 (September 26, 2011), https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6494.2011.00718.x; Christopher Allinson and John Hayes, The Cognitive Style Index: Technical Manual and User Guide (United Kingdom: Pearson Education, 2012); Sarah Moore, Donncha O’Maidin, and Annette Mcelligott, “Cognitive Styles Among Computer Systems Students: Preliminary Findings,” Journal of Computing in Higher Education 14, no. 2 (2002): 45–67, https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02940938; Lilach Sagiv et al., “Not All Great Minds Think Alike: Systematic and Intuitive Cognitive Styles,” Journal of Personality 82, no. 5 (October 21, 2013), https://doi.org/10.1111/jopy.12071.

  8. Carothers and Reis, “Men and Women Are from Earth,” 12; Daphna Joel et al., “Sex Beyond the Genitalia: The Human Brain Mosaic,” PNAS, October 2015, 1, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1509654112.

  9. Rosa A. Hoekstra et al., “Heritability of Autistic Traits in the General Population,” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 161, no. 4 (2007): 372–77, http://docs.autismresearchcentre.com/papers/2007_Hoekstra_etal_AQin_twins_APAM2007.pdf; Gayle C. Windham, Karen Fessel, and Judith K. Grether, “Autism Spectrum Disorders in Relation to Parental Occupation in Technical Fields,” Autism Research 2, no. 4 (2009): 183–91 page 186. STEM professionals (m = 21.92, SD = 8.92) scored higher than those in non-STEM careers (m = 18.92, SD = 8.48). Similarly, men (m = 21.55, SD = 8.82) scored higher than women (m = 18.95; SD = 8.52), Emily Ruzich et al., “Sex and STEM Occupation Predict Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ) Scores in Half a Million People,” ed. Masako Taniike, PLOS ONE 10, no. 10 (October 21, 2015): e0141229, http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0141229.

  10. Meng-Chuan Lai et al., “A Behavioral Comparison of Male and Female Adults with High Functioning Autism Spectrum Conditions,” ed. James Scott, PLoS ONE 6, no. 6 (June 13, 2011): e20835, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0020835; Jordynn Jack, Autism and Gender: From Refrigerator Mothers to Computer Geeks (Urbana: University of Illinois, 2014), 151; Meng-Chuan Lai et al., “Sex/Gender Differences and Autism: Setting the Scene for Future Research,” Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 54, no. 1 (January 2015): 11–24, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaac.2014.10.003.

  11. Steve Silberman, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity (New York: Avery, 2016).

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